Research findings, often quoted in the press, have suggested that religious people tend to be happier than non-believers. It is hard to know what to make of this. It’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that we should spruce up our religious beliefs and practices – or, at the very least, make sure we don’t miss our yoga class.
But it wouldn’t take long to remember that religion can cause as many problems as it can address. People can be left seriously scarred by guilt and other vestiges of a religious upbringing – and religion can also be a source of unhappiness when it leads to division, for instance within a family. And even the research about happiness and religion is more complicated than it sounds and depends partly on social context: the relationship between faith and wellbeing holds mainly in societies where life is harder.
There is also the broader question about the extent to which research findings are helpful in guiding our choices. We’d be wrong to draw conclusions about changes we need to make in our life on the basis of this sort of information, since studies deal with averages and don’t really reveal much about individuals.
Still, these kinds of findings can have a limited usefulness in identifying those things that tend to be important for us to thrive. In this case, it turns out that it’s not religious belief in itself that is essential, but more a question of what it points to – what we could call the “active ingredients”.
According to psychologist Ed Diener, who has done extensive research on happiness, such ingredients include community and social support, having moral rules to guide our actions and a sense of purpose, not being selfish, and “experiencing positive emotions that connect us to a world larger than ourselves”, such as love, awe and gratitude. We might consider cultivating these.
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Imagine for a moment that you want to be happier and you’re convinced by the research that says religion will help you to achieve that goal. Or suppose you were persuaded by 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s argument that religion is a good bet, because it could get you an entry pass to heaven and, at the very least, will provide some comfort in the here and now. If you don’t believe, however, either hell or death awaits.
These are both more or less persuasive arguments as to why you would be better off being religious – but they don’t actually give you any reason to accept the truth of the beliefs themselves. To put it another way, you are not being given reasons to believe but reasons for thinking it would be good for you if you did.
However, we can’t just choose what to believe because it would be convenient to do so. Of course, people do sometimes deceive themselves to avoid uncomfortable truths but that usually happens unconsciously. Believing by mere force of effort is nigh on impossible.
And why should we? There are many of us who would put our commitment to truth above our desire to feel better. We say that ignorance is bliss with regret, not excited anticipation: few would choose such euphoria over life in a more sober reality.
Asking if we ought to be religious is, however, a bit like asking if we ought to get married. There is no general answer – it all depends on the specifics. Many assume that religion requires belief in supernatural beings but there have always been some for whom God is a personification of certain values, rather than a person or even a force. Nor does religion necessarily entail belonging to a group or holding certain texts to be sacred.
One welcome way of being minimally religious is to have a sense of being answerable to more than just ourselves – a seriousness about our moral responsibilities, and a feeling that mere self-fulfilment isn’t good enough.
That’s something that everyone, atheist or theist, can adopt, whether it makes them happier or not.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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